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Our definition

  • Our use of the term 'holarchy' refers to systems where the 'whole' is governed by its parts.
  • We apply it mainly to the creation and (self-)management of teams that create synergy.
  • It is useful, therefore, to contrast it with the idea of 'hierarchy' (e.g. in management).

Koestler's use of the word

  • The term 'holarchy' was originally coined by Arthur Koestler (1967).
  • He referred to a special type of hierarchical organization made of individual holons.
  • Holons are parts of a bigger system and individual 'wholes' at the same time.
  • Observed from ‘lower’ levels - a holon will look like a whole, while observed from ‘higher’ levels - it will look like a part.
  • Unlike hierarchies, holarchies are created by 'bottom-up' processes.
  • Here, interactions between holons at a ‘low’ level define the next ‘higher’ level, etc.
  • E.g. atoms develop chemical bonds with one another to create molecules we can describe as 'higher-order holons' (Smith, 2006: 3).


Diagram inspired by Fleming Funch's drawing

  • What we mean by 'levels' in a holarchy (i.e. 'higher' and ‘lower’ describes their relative positions within the holarchy.
  • Smith identifies three key criteria that help to ‘rank’ levels in a holarchy;
  1. the manifestation of new properties in a holon not found in lower-level holons. (e.g. molecules have properties not exhibited by atoms / all cells have properties not exhibited by molecules, etc.)
  2. an asymmetric relationship between holons - i.e. higher holons cannot exist without lower ones (Smith, 2006: 1).
  3. the degree of complexity of the holon. “it is widely accepted that as life has evolved, it has become more complex, so it’s quite reasonable to equate complexity with holarchical status” (Smith, 2006: 3).
  • N.B. then why does Homo Sapiens have only 4 DNA codes where some other primates have 19?

Holarchy and metadesign

  • Do the above notions of 'holarchy' and 'hierarchy' contradict one another?
  • Biologists Eldrege & Salthe (1984) differentiate between 'genealogical' and 'ecological' hierarchies in nature.
  • This could also apply to holarchies (?).
  • E.g. how do successive versions of a given design relate to previous attempts?

square-50cm-spacer.jpg File:EuropeanCityBikeOmafiets.jpeg square-50cm-spacer.jpg motorbike-falcon.jpg

square-50cm-spacer.jpg 20th c. European city bike square-50cm-spacer.jpg Falcon motorbike

  • The order of events that produces a better design usually sets up a (temporal) hierarchy of knowledge or meaning.
  • As an exemplar (i.e. ancestor) to the motorcycle, the bicycle is 'genealogically hierarchically' higher.
  • However, in 'ecologically hierarchical' terms the bicycle is lower than the motorbike (n.b. only in terms of speed, acceleration etc.).


  • Emergence is a form of bottom-up organization that can be described by holarchy.
  • The principle of emergence refers to the appearance of new organisational levels within a living system, which, in most cases, cannot be entirely anticipated in advance. Emergence is expressed in the organisation of living systems, which enables them to maintain their autopoiesis on the one hand, as well as to constantly change and adapt in response to ‘external’ forces on the other hand. .


In the context of organisations, the idea of holarchic organisation is a different form of management. Instead of imposing roles and rules from above, the holarchic organisation suggests that organisations ‘build’ themselves from the bottom upwards. This may entail giving increased responsibility to employees by allowing them to define the ongoing formation of the organisation through their constant feedback interactions with one another. This type of reformulation can potentially benefit organisations by allowing them to maintain a much higher degree of flexibility and adaptability. As Fell and Dimitrov suggest when they discuss autopoiesis in organisations, the emphasis becomes “understanding the process whereby a multitude of factors influence organisational dynamics” (Fell and Dimitrov, 1997: 1).

Further reading
  • Koestler, A., (1967), “The Act of Creation”, London: Hutchinson Margulis, 1967
  • See Ken Wilber's 20 Principles).
  • See also Fairtlough, G. (2005) The Three Ways of Getting Things Done: Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy in Organizations, Triarchy Press, Bridport, Dorset, UK

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